Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review - What It Was Like

What It Was Like -  Peter Seth (2014) - In the summer of 1968 a young man takes a job at a summer camp in Upstate New York.  He will enter Columbia University that fall on a scholarship and needs to make some pocket money.  It is at camp that he meets Rachel Prince.  She's the unattainable queen of Camp Mooncliff.  Beautiful but remote.  The narrator (we never learn his name) tries anyway and wins her heart.  It begins a roller coaster ride of love and betrayal that leads to prison for him.

Don't worry, I haven't given anything away.  You'll find out he's in prison on the very first page.

The English have this wonderful concept of the "busman's holiday".  In simplest form it means that you spend your vacation doing something related or similar to what you do for a living.  So a busman (bus driver) would go on a bus tour, a teacher would take classes, etc.  As a youth minister, reading this book was something of a busman's holiday for me.  It's about teenagers and the convoluted lives they can lead when life runs a little too far ahead of their ability to cope.

Sadly, this means that there was very little mystery about "what happens next" for me.  Within a hundred pages I knew the ending, at least in broad strokes.  The only question was whether it was going to be Romeo and Juliet, or Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.  Consequently most of my reading time consisted of watching the adults in the story screw up the lives of these two young people over and over and over.  The camp director, Rachel's parents, the narrator's parents, each every one of them failed these young people repeatedly.  Any of them could have averted the ending but chose not to do so.  From my point of view it was simply infuriating.

(Some folks may be surprised to see I include the narrator's parents in the list of failures.  They are presented as nice if somewhat ineffectual folks just trying to do the best they can.  I don't deny any of that.  At the same time one of them needed to sit down and have a serious talk with their son as his life began to spin out of control.  Instead they sat back, shook their heads mournfully and did nothing.  In choosing their comfort over the needs of their child they failed their son just as surely as the vindictive evilness of Rachel's parents failed her.)

The authorial conceit of never naming the narrator could have become overly cute or burdensome.  Credit to Peter Seth's writing skill that I very nearly didn't notice it.  It wasn't till I tried to describe the action to my wife and couldn't come up with the boy's name that it struck me.

For me, "What It Was Like" didn't break any real new ground.  The story here is all too familiar.  Emotionally immature/broken teens desperately search for love, connection and stability.  Poor decisions are made because they lack the background to understand what they are doing and they lack the parental support to gain it safely.  Most kids get through that phase with just some minor emotional scars.  Some don't make it through at all.  It's just sad, depressing reading that's all too close to home.

At the same time, Seth's story telling skill is highly polished.  The story is easily readable and carries the reader along quite effortlessly.  While the story may have dragged at me, the storytelling kept me going.  Hundreds of pages of personal and professional agony that I still wanted to plow through.  I'm not sure there's any higher praise you can offer an author.

I wanted to be wrong.  Seth kept me reading until I found out.

"What It Was Like" is due on the bookshelves September 2, 2014 from The Story Plant.

This one is a tough call for me.  The story is only a 3 star for me personally but the writing deserves a little better than that.  So somewhere between a "Worth A Look" and "Recommended".

Rating - ***1/2  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Movie Review - Long Day's Journey Into Night

Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) - A drug addicted mother (Katherine Hepburn), an alcoholic, former stage matinee idol father (Ralph Richardson), the no account older son (Jason Robards) and the pampered baby of the family who has contracted tuberculosis (Dean Stockwell) slash at one another as their family begins its final descent into dysfunction.  They alternate between screaming insanity, caustic sarcasm and occasional glimpses of familial love as they deal with the issues between them by trying to avoid discussing those issues whenever possible.

This is not a pleasant family.  It sounds like they may have been once upon a time but even then you find tiny glimpses of the decay at the center of this family's soul.  Did Jamey (Robards) intentionally expose his infant brother to the measles, resulting in the baby's death?  Did James (Richardson) really get left, dead drunk, at his new wife's hotel door on their wedding day?  The legends have become as much a part of their history as what actually happened.  They slash at each other verbally, then retreat, apologize and circle back around to do it again.

The story is based on playwright Eugene O'Neill's life and the movie is based on the play of the same name.  This is a spectacular cast (there's only one other actor in the entire movie, Jeanne Barr, who plays the house maid Kathleen.  It's a tiny and inconsequential role) is spell binding to watch.  Stockwell is a solid actor who would go on to steady career on TV and in the movies, but it's all he can do to stay with the others.  Robards brings a "dog who has been kicked too often" feel to the role of Jamey, the failed older son.  Lacking any ambition of his own he turned to his father to get him a job in the theater and then derides both his parent and the theater at every chance he gets.  But he never finds the spine to stand up to his father or move on.  Richardson is amazing as the older man who sees that he squandered his chance at greatness by settling for monetary success.  Once upon a time James had been one of the rising stars of the stage but chose to do the same role for years because it was guaranteed money.  When he realized it was time to do something else, it was too late.  He had trapped himself in the role and faded to obscurity.  His rise from poverty has made him a miser.  Not wanting to spend more money than he must has brought great pain to the family, including addicting his wife to morphine.

Which brings us to Katherine Hepburn's Mary.  Mary is the most volatile of all the family, slipping from madness to despair to razor sharp verbal assault in seconds.  The role has to be exhausting and Hepburn carries every moment she's on the screen.  Mary's anguish at her addiction, the loss of her father to tuberculosis and now the diagnosis of her youngest child with the same, watching her beloved husband fade professionally and descend ever deeper into alcoholism, the complete failure of any sense of accomplishment in her life is soul wrenching.  This is a fabulous performer by one of the finest actors of her generation.

But this is not an easy movie to watch.  First of all, it's six minutes shy of three hours long.  Three hours without a smile, let alone a laugh.  Three hours watching a family tear itself to shreds, pause to regroup, then do it all again.  The performances are stunning.  The act of watch those performances is an ordeal.  Add in the sometimes intrusive score by Andre Previn and it can be a struggle at times.

Well worth watching, but not for the weak of heart.  The ordeal just makes it too tough to rate any higher.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, July 14, 2014

Movie Review - "The Pawnbroker"

The Pawnbroker (1964) - Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is a Jew who survived the Holocaust and now runs a pawn shop in East Harlem.  He carries with him the emotional scars of watching his children killed and his wife raped in the concentration camp.  His solution is to seal off his emotions and reject any connection with the people around him.  Nazerman eventually must face the results of his decisions.

A chilling look at the emotional death of a man.  Nazerman believes he has found a way to survive, instead he discovers the cost of that decision.  His rejection of the people around him helps him to hold the memories of the past at bay.   The reality is that he has thrown in with a local crime boss (Brock Peters) who is using the pawn shop as a money laundering front for the profits of his criminal enterprises, including prostitution.  It is the discovery of that last fact that shatters his illusions and cause him to lose the people around him once again.

"The Pawnbroker" is the movie that took Rod Steiger from just another name and put him on the top of Hollywood's list of leading actors.  It earned Steiger an Oscar nomination.  Both he and director Sidney Lumet picked an array of nominations and awards around the world for the movie.   A solid supporting cast (Peters, Geraldine Fitzgerald and even Morgan Freeman in his very first, non-speaking, role) plus a sound track by Quincy Jones make a powerful package.  Shot entirely in black and white the final effect is claustrophobic and stunning.  There is a level of gritty realism that you seldom see.

Steiger is almost unrecognizable in this movie.  With his thinning hair barely covering his head and equally wispy mustache he looks much more like Anthony Hopkins than the bald headed bull of a man I usually think of when when I think of him.  (We get a glimpse of that Steiger in the concentration camp flashbacks)  His slow, inexorable destruction of Nazerman's protective shell is a brilliant perfomance.

This is the first major motion picture to deal with the Holocaust from the point of view of a survivor.  It's also the first movie to recieve approval under the old Production Code that showed a woman's bare breasts (actually two women).  This movie would mark the beginning of the end of the Production Code.

Not a movie when you are looking for a fun way to spend an afternoon.  This is one to keep until you're ready for something special, something challenging, something profoundly human.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

Monday, July 7, 2014

Movie Review - Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder (2008) - Through a set of bizarre circumstances a group of actors shooting a big budget Viet Nam war movie suddenly discover themselves in a real shooting war.  They're over budget, behind schedule and their newbie director dies in an accident.  The actors assume everything is more of the director's attemtp to create "realism" so when a drug gang attacks them they assume it's just part of the shoot.  Eventually they have to rescue star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller).  Utter insanity ensues.

Let me be honest, I have no idea why I watched this movie.  I can only plead that the concept was so utterly, utterly insane that I couldn't resist.  The cast is certainly interesting - Robert Downey Jr.(playing a white actor who is playing a black character.  A totally over the top performance that has to be experienced to be believed), Jack Black plays another of the cast who is not quite firmly connected to reality.  My feeling has always been that Black is better in a supporting role ("School of Rock" being the obvious exception, although he has a bunch of cute kids to keep him grounded in that one).  Tom Cruise plays movie exec Les Grossman in a performance so completely out of control as to beggar description.  Matthew McConaughey plays agent Rick Peck to a demented T as well.  There's a handful of star cameos as well.

If you've ever seen a Viet Nam war movie you'll recognize scene after scene in "Tropic Thunder".  They're all there, from "Platoon" to "Apocalypse Now".  Here, they are fabulously sent up by a cast and script that just go for it.  This is a great send up of the entire genre.  It mocks Hollywood, stardom, the movies, even the actors themselves sometimes.

At the same time I must admit that the movie takes on some uncomfortable humor as well.  Tuggman's previous movie hit "Simple Jack" is more than a little overboard.  Intended to parody heart tugging movies about people with physical or mental challenges (think "Forrest Gump" or "Radio") it spends way too much time just be unpleasant and derogatory.

I went into this movie prepared to dump it 40 minutes in.  Instead I was amused, charmed and delighted.  It's an utterly insane and often idiotic movie.  But it's a funny, insane and idiotic movie.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Reviews - Daughter of Elysium/The Children Star

Daughter of Elysium (1993) and The Children Star (1998)  by Joan Slonczewski - Two novels from a common universe.  Slonczewski is a microbiologist at Kenyon College and brings that hard science background to her work.  These books make up two thirds of the "Elysium Cycle".  The stories examine events on several planets when an intelligent microbe is discovered.  The microbe lifespan is very short which means they evolve very quickly.  Thus many generations can live within a host in just a fraction of the host's lifespan.  Some of the characters find a relationship with the microbes sentients while others want to fight them.  To do this they create nano-servitors that are injected into the host bodies to fight off the invasion.  When the servitors develop their own level of sentience the situation becomes even more complicated.

I have yet to find a decent summary of the story of either novel.  Slonczewski has created a wonderfully detailed and intricate universe with complex societies of many different races.  Without some understanding of those societies the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Here's what I can tell you:

  • This is hard science science fiction.  The author knows her stuff and uses it well.
  • This universe with all its diversity is carefully crafted.
  • The author (yes, I'm tired of typing her name.  Sue me.  My apologies to the good doctor.) is a solid storyteller.
I have two problems with both novels.  First, is the hard science.  Keeping the science accessible to people like me, who understand just enough science to get in trouble, is always a challenge.  Overall, she does very, very well with a complicated system.  Every once in a while however the story gets submerged in the details of the science.  If you're really into hard science science fiction that is probably not a problem for you.  It was a struggle to me at times.

My other issue was the complexity of the social aspects of the universe.  These are the first two novels of the cycle so it's not that I missed something by not reading an earlier volume of the series.  Because so much of that complexity is an important part of the story it became a little bit of chore to try and keep it all clear in my head.  I figured it all out in the end.  Which is fine but I dislike feeling like I have to do some of the heavy lifting in reading the book.  Maybe that makes me lazy (but I don't think so) but it can be a stumbling block to enjoying the story.

In the end, these are wonderfully crafted, complex novels that offer an unique and fascinating universe.  The stories offer something new and interesting with solid characters.  If you are looking for some outstanding science fiction with a hard science basis take a look at the two (the third volume is "Brain Plague").

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Review - Fail Safe

Fail Safe (2000) - Set at the height of the Cold War,  a computer glitch launches American nuclear bombers toward the Soviet Union.  Because they have passed the "fail safe" point (a precautionary stage designed to avoid these kinds of accidents) they can not be recalled.  The President of the United States faces an unimaginable choice as he tries to avoid an all out nuclear war.

This is the made for TV version of the best selling 1962 novel of the same name.  There was a major motion picture version made in 1964 starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau.  As we headed into the new century CBS aired this version.  With an all star cast (Walter Cronkite, Richard Dreyfuss, Noah Wylie, Don Cheadle, Brian Dennehy, Sam Elliott, James Cromwell, Hank Azaria, George Clooney and Harvey Keitel, among others) and veteran director Stephen Frears (the same year as "High Fidelity") they went for something a little more daring than most made for TV movies.  The original broadcast was done live.  Plus it was done entirely in black and white.  The overall effect is amazing.  Intentionally avoiding modern production slickness gives a better feel for "back then" and builds suspense.  Coupled with the immediacy of a live performance (with its occasional bobbles) and the stunning work of the cast this is enthralling viewing.

For a modern viewer the black and white, lower production values and minor uneveness of the live performance may be a little disruptive at first.  My advice is to brush all that aside and just let it wash over you.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review - Mythed Connections

Mythed Connections by Michael G. Munz (2013) - Three short stories that take the figures of Greek mythology and plant them firmly in the modern world.  In "The Atheist and the Ferryman" a young man discovers there's an enormous river running through his basement.  With a strange and grumpy old man in charge of bringing people across.  In "The Snipe Hunt" a 10 year old girl gets a little revenge on her older brothers with the help of Hermes.  Finally, in "Playing with Hubris" a young author is offered the assistance of both a god and a muse.

Taking on mythology is an almost irresistable impulse for many authors.  In most cases it's an impulse they really should have resisted.  Which makes the success of these three stories by Michael G. Munz all the more astounding.  He balances all the elements beautifully.  The characters from the ancient world aren't anachronisms wandering aimlessly through the world.  They have a clear grip of who they are and what they do in the modern world.  Munz brings just enough humor to the stories to make them a delight to read.  Don't worry if your Greek mythology is rusty, he gives you the important bits along the way.

The stories are sharply written and pitch perfect when it comes to the interaction between the modern and mythological characters.  In the end it's just a delightful (and quick, sadly) read.  For a rainy weekend or a summer time read, "Mythed Connections" is the perfect choice.  When you reach the end and wish there was more the good news is that he's expanded the ideas into a full length novel "Zeus is Dead: A Monsterously Inconvenient Adventure".  Look for that to be available in late July of 2014.

In the meantime, read this one.

Rating -**** Recommended

Monday, June 23, 2014

Movie Review - Swing Time

Swing Time - (1936)  Dancer and gambler Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) gets tricked out of marriage by his fellow performers.  His father-in-law to be will let him try again if he can go to New York and raise $25,000.  Once Lucky gets there he crosses paths with aspiring dancer Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers).  Dancing and romance ensue.66

Rogers and Astaire teamed up 10 times on the big screen (this is #6 and Rogers said it was her favorite).  This is a classic musical comedy.  It comes with catchy tunes like "Pick Yourself UplAdance  routines of Rogers and Astaire.  As is also the custom for musicals the plot is a lightwieght  piece designed to string together the music and dancing.  Toss in  a couple of solid character roles (played by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick) and it's a lot of fun along the way.

Of course, you don't watch Astaires and Rogers movies for the plot.  The dancing sections in this one deliver beautifully.  The movie does show its age a little with the blackface "Bojangles" number.   But it also displays some amazing large ensemble dancing and some snazzy effects for the day and age.

One of the trademarks of the dancing with Astaire in the movies is that you always get to see the entire dancer.  The emphasis is placed on the dancing rather than highlighting the dancer with closeups.  It results in a much better feel for the dancing and an overall better visual for the movie.  Add in Astaire's preference for dance scenes to be done in one continuous shot and you begin to understand how the dancing holds up so well after so many years.

I'm always amazed when I watch both Rogers and Astaire.  Neither of them had classic movie star looks.  Ginger comes closest but she's really much more the girl next door good looking as compared to a Grace Kelly movie star.  Astaire bears a remarkable resemblence to silent movie comedy giant Stan Laurel.  Hardly what you would expect for a big time leading man.  In both cases it is the likable personalities of the two stars that make the difference.

That and the dancing of course.

Looking for something fun and frothy to wile away an hour or two? This could be just the ticket.

Rating - **** Recommended 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review - Fusion

Fusion: A collection of short stories from Breakwater Harbor Books' authors (2013) - 

Breakwater Harbor Books is a group of self-published authors that have banded together for promotional and support purposes.  This is just what it says, a collection of their short works.  Sadly, the quality of that work varies widely from one end of the collection to the other.

Even worse the lead off story is my least favorite.  "The Sliver of Abilon - A Mirrorsmith Tale" by Dee Harrison lives down to every negative stereotype of fantasy fiction.  The language is baroque with simple concepts adorned in elaborate vocabulary.  The story struck me as awkward and halting.  It was bad enough that I nearly stopped reading at that point.

Things didn't get any better with "Diary of the Gone" by Ivan Amberlake.  Amberlake's writing reads like the product of a modestly talented ninth grader.  He hasn't learned how to tell a story and gets caught up in what he thinks is clever word play.  Instead we end up with peculiar sentence structure and ideas left hanging without any connection to the story.  Even when I re-scanned the story for this review I have no idea what it's about.  It revolves around high school students and some mysterious activity in a local swamp.

"Life Ever After. Nina's Story: Part 1" by Claire C. Riley was the first stories in this collection that made me think it might be worth continuing to the end of the collection.  She brings a little bit of a new twist to the zombie story.  Told from the point of view of a married couple who had been struggling with their relationship it gives a new way of approaching the story.  There's not a lot here but the title gives me hope that she will continue to explore what she's created.

Next up is "NovaFall" by Scott Toney.  It returns us to the overwritten style of the first story.  The concept is interesting but the writing just overwhelms it.  Toney is listed as the founder of Breakwater Harbor Books.  A quote from his "About the Author" section gives a taste of his approach.  "As an author, Toney has become a bard of many genres, from Fantasy and Sci-Fi, to Romantic Suspense, Historical and Religious Fiction".  "A bard"?  Seriously?  My recommendation is that he try to focus a little more and polish his skills in just a few genres.

"Cybilla" by Mindy Haig is the fifth story in the collection.  By this time I was just about ready to quit.  Imagine my surprise when a romance story that draws heavily on concepts from mythology.  Not eactly my normal reading material.  But the story is well told and the writing is solid.

"Capturing Perfection - An artist's tale of love, love and beauty in Renaissance Milan" by Cara Goldthorpe.  Beyond it's ridiculously long title, the story (by another co-founder of the group) is interesting.  A beautiful woman is forced to use her gifts of painting to create works that her husband takes credit for.  Eventually she creates a special deck of tarot cards.  Goldthorpe bases that part of the story on historical fact.  I found her story telling a little awkward for my taste but the story carried me over that hurdle.

Closing out the collection is "until the Ninth Hour" by C.M.T. Stibbe.  Here we get a murder mystery to round out the book.  Centering on the work of a serial killer the story drew me in more than I expected.  It was a solid way to wrap things up.

Having read several other, similar collections I was disappointed in this one.  The couple of well written stories only barely balance the lesser offerings.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Movie Review - Z

Z (1969) - A political thriller following the assassination of a leading left wing politician an investigator tries to find the truth.  The authorities insist that the death of Z (Yves Montand) was the result of an accident but the investigator (Jean Louis Tritignant) refuses to be distracted.  He pursues the truth to the very end.

This is an challenging movie that many folks will find difficult.  First it is entirely in French with subtitles.  Director Costa Gravas brings a gritty, documentary style to the look of the movie while the script offers a black comedy look at the politics of a military junta government.  Based on a book of the same name by  Vassilis Vassilikos it is based very clearly on actual events in Greece under a military dictatorship.  The actual investigator eventually rose to be President of a democratic Greece.

The intensity of the thriller is skillfully balanced by Costa Gravas with the satire of the story.  There are times when the shoe string budget of the production is obvious but the story is relentless.  There is an intensity to politics in a nation smaller than our own that is hypnotic in the hands of a great director.

This movie requires your complete attention for 127 minutes but you'll be glad to make the investment.  Not a movie for a day when you are looking for some light viewing but a movie that will stick with you.

Rating - **** Recommended